I remember when I first heard of Nelson Mandela.
Not coincidentally, it was also my first exposure to the word apartheid. I was a teenager at home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
On this particular evening, my father explained at the dinner table that apartheid was a legal system separating racial groups and preserving the white supremacy practiced in South Africa. He went on to say that a black South African named Nelson Mandela had been sent to prison for life for his struggle to end apartheid.
In 1985, I proposed that the Detroit Free Press send me to South Africa to attempt to photograph everyday life under apartheid. I was convinced that the reality, the indignities, and the ambiguities of daily existence in South Africa also spoke to the tragedies of segregation and prejudice in my own country.
Traversing the country, I was able to access all racial groups and was welcomed into diverse communities. I was humbled by the goodwill I was shown by blacks and whites alike.
In early 1986, I was doing an essay on one of South Africa's most prominent anti-apartheid activists, the reverend Allan Boesak. After we had traveled together for some time, Reverend Boesak asked me late one evening to accompany him to a small motel outside of Durban. It was only when we arrived that I realized we were attending a leadership meeting of the underground anti-apartheid movement; had the police learned of the gathering, everyone would have been arrested. As we entered, Winnie Mandela swept in, accompanied by the black South African photographer named Peter Magubane, legendary for his commitment to covering the realities of his country under apartheid.
I still vividly remember one of the first things Peter said to me that night. "David, there is only one thing you need to know to work as a photojournalist in this country. Don't talk. Listen. And if you do talk, don't say anything." It was a valuable lesson, and certainly not the last bit of wisdom I've gained from observing Peter Magubane approach the world. He and I went on to become close friends and colleagues, keeping rooms next to each other in the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg for the next two years.
In many ways, my relationship with Peter Magubane came to embody for me what South Africa could be. Two colleagues from entirely different backgrounds, we shared not only the complexities of our competitive profession but also similar values. We believed in working hard and being considerate in whatever we did; we believed in the pleasure of humor; in humility; and in a deep love of photography, which I think both of us recognized as a gift that had landed in our laps. We frequented restaurants together—on expense accounts from our respective publications—and we gleefully observed the confusion and discomfort of white patrons and black busboys alike over seeing the two of us have so much fun together.
In the course of my work in South Africa, I was arrested more than a dozen times, simply for doing my job.
On one occasion I was arrested as I accompanied a group of white South African women, activists in a protest group known as Black Sash, on a visit to New Brighton Township, outside of Port Elizabeth. After some time alone in a jail cell, and an interrogation, I was led to a telephone and, presented with a phone book, told that I could make one call. I looked through the Yellow Pages and found the number of the Port Elizabeth Legal Resources Centre, where I reached a man who listened attentively as I rattled off the details of my predicament. Without hesitation he assured me that he would be there within minutes to secure my release.
About a half hour later the cell door opened and I was told I was free to go; the lawyer I phoned had paid my bail. Outside, I was greeted by a handsome black man in a sharp suit who introduced himself as Fikile Bam. Later, over coffee, he told me about himself. He had spent 10 years as a political prisoner on Robben Island and, for much of the time, was held in the wing they called "the University," with Mandela. When I asked him what it had been like, he said it was hard to explain, but the level of intellect and commitment among the political prisoners was so high he had considered it a bright time in his life. In many ways, his spirits had been higher on the inside than on the outside. The political prisoners, all members of the ANC, believed in active debate as a political philosophy, and he recalled with fondness how, each day, they would each take the other side of an issue in a vigorous argument. They were committed to a vision of a secular, multiracial republic and were preparing to create a new constitution, with democratic architecture, for a new South Africa.
The next day Bam got my arrest removed from the record. Indeed, a new day was not far off—though my time in South Africa would soon be cut short. Despite the protests of my newspaper and the American Embassy in Pretoria, on November 30, 1987, the South African government revoked my press credentials and expelled me from the country.
After I was forced to leave South Africa, Paris became my home and my base for covering the world as a photojournalist. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the student movement in China, strong winds of rebellion and reform were sweeping through the world. It was a hopeful time.
Then, one January afternoon in 1990, I got a surprise phone call from a high-ranking diplomat at the South African Embassy in Paris, asking me to lunch. "Things are about to change in my country, and we need people with credibility like yours to go back and cover those changes." When news broke the following week that Nelson Mandela was going to be released from Victor Verster Prison after more than 10,000 days in captivity, I was on a flight to Cape Town within the hour.
At dawn on Sunday, February 11, in the blazing heat of the South African summer, there were dozens of photographers standing side by side, each of us the tenant of a very small piece of land from which we would not and could not move for the next nine hours. At nearly 4 p.m., the crowd began to roar with euphoria and celebration, and as the prison gates opened we spotted at the center of the entourage, holding hands with his wife and right fist raised in the air, a smiling Nelson Mandela. In a shutter-flash, the "invisible" leader returned to steer into a new era.
I was able to shoot about three frames before the crowd broke in front of our photographic pen and Nelson Mandela sped away in a motorcade, headed to the center of Cape Town to join a grand parade in his honor. More than half a million South Africans of all hues and affiliations were waiting to see the man they affectionately called "Madiba."
I last saw Nelson Mandela at Christmas 2006.
On this day, Mandela sat with the two young sons of the captain of the South Africa Rugby team, seated on his lap. In his innocence, one the boys asked, "Madiba, how could they have put you in prison for 27 years if you didn't steal anything?"
"Sweetheart," Nelson Mandela replied with a soft and knowing smile, "I'm afraid I did steal something. I stole freedom for our people."
And that day a thought dawned on me, something as applicable to my own life as to my own son, who grows taller and wiser by the day in a new South Africa: we are all Mandela's children.